Illustration used by the Eugenics Society

Eugenics Was Wrong Even When It Got It Right

Ann Leary’s 2022 novel The Foundling follows a young white woman, Mary Engle, who in the 1930s lands a job as secretary to Dr. Agnes Vogel. The fictional Dr. Vogel is the founder and director of the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age, an institution based on many real-life institutions, including one where Leary’s grandmother once worked. Nettleton State Village is meant to incarcerate “feebleminded” girls and women from puberty to menopause in order to prevent “defective” offspring. The Foundling offers a sharp critique of Nettleton State Village and by implication, its real-life counterparts. As the novel shows, many of the women locked up in eugenics institutions were not actually intellectually disabled, and Leary alerts readers to this ahead of time in her author’s note. The novel ascribes the presence of nondisabled women in the institution to three causes: the sexism, racism, and corruption of eugenic practice.

Leary uses the character of Lillian, a childhood friend of Mary’s, to demonstrate eugenics’ intertwined racism and sexism. Lillian—whom Mary grew up with in a Catholic orphanage—is incarcerated at Nettleton because she had a baby out of wedlock with a Black lover and refused to pretend that he had raped her. The sexism of eugenics meant that it categorized women as “morons” or “moral imbeciles” if they strayed from classed notions of sexual purity. And the racism of eugenics meant that if a white woman bore a mixed-race child, that in itself was evidence that she was “mentally defective.” In the novel, Lillian’s “immoral behavior” is taken as proof of her “moron” status. The director, Dr. Vogel, is also a corrupt administrator: she knowingly acquires “normal” girls and women from local jails to increase the number of workers at the institution, and thereby her profits and her reputation. The novel further condemns eugenics institutions for the poor conditions in which the women live and work, especially if they have shown any resistance.

A blue background with the silhouette of a scary building in the background
The Foundling cover art. (©Simon and Schuster)

The Foundling, in other words, laments the fact that eugenics ended up targeting the wrong people. Positive reviews of the novel in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post endorse and reiterate this critique. They tie the novel to current-day concerns about women’s reproductive autonomy, noting, for example, that “fear of wombs is nothing new,” and explain the novel’s central problem: “Lillian Faust…now finds herself milking cows on Vogel’s model farm not because she is feebleminded—she’s the opposite of that—but because she bore a child with a Black man.”[1] But this protest on behalf of those who were not actually disabled implicitly endorses eugenics as long as it accurately identifies disabled people. That is, while rightly criticizing eugenics for sweeping up the wrong people, Leary, along with her reviewers and other contemporary writers, neglects the fact that eugenics was also wrong when it got it right.

Leary’s narrative demonstrates very little interest in or sympathy for the women at the institution who are disabled. Among a nameless mass of disabled women whom Mary sees in the dairy and dining hall, there is only one named disabled character: Elsie is a young, nonspeaking savant, whose head “loll[s] from side to side,” and who is classed by Dr. Vogel as a “profound idiot.” She plays the piano with extraordinary talent. The narrative does show sympathy for her when she is mistreated by the staff, but there is no mention of an alternative living situation for her. Moreover, because she is the only disabled character given even this amount of textual sympathy, the novel implies that Elsie deserves it only because of her compensatory talent, her identity as a “supercrip”: a disabled person with a superability, viewed in popular culture as inspiring and by disability activists as problematic.[2] After Elsie plays at a concert designed by Mary to showcase Lillian’s intelligence, the narrative does not mention her again.

The Foundling has a mostly happy ending in that Mary is able to rescue Lillian from the institution and help reunite her with her lover and child. Dr. Vogel’s corruption is exposed and she is removed from the leadership of the asylum, although she soon becomes the head of the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Welfare. The worst conditions at Nettleton are remedied and the worst staff removed. Mary still has regrets that she was not able to do more to expose Nettleton and “other, similar asylums.” However, the novel’s repeated objections to the incarceration of “normal” women at the institution, its emphasis on the fact that Lillian does not “belong” there, and its lack of interest in disabled women make clear that its main criticism of eugenics is that it rounded up the wrong people. Actually disabled women such as Elsie, the novel implies, do belong in institutions. The novel gives the impression that if only the conditions and staff were decent, the doctor honorable, and the right women incarcerated—if eugenic ideology were cleared of its racism, sexism, and classism, and institutions of their financial corruption—eugenic institutionalization would have been acceptable.

Leary is not alone in giving this impression. Many contemporary popular and academic writers similarly fail to attack the ableism at the heart of eugenics. In his otherwise engaging and informative book Imbeciles (2017), for example, Adam Cohen tells readers three times in the introduction alone that Carrie Buck, who was at the center of the 1927 Supreme Court case that legalized involuntary sterilization, was not in fact an imbecile, but was of “perfectly normal intelligence.” In presenting the number of people forcibly sterilized in the United States, Cohen remarks, “Many of the victims were, like Carrie, perfectly normal both mentally and physically—and they desperately wanted to have children.” Cohen does not say that people who were actually disabled should have been sterilized, of course; but he does not make clear that many disabled victims of eugenic sterilization also “desperately wanted”—and had a right—to have children.

A more subtle example can be found in Philippa Levine’s Eugenics: A Very Short Introduction (2017), which is packed full of excellent information and analysis. Levine does mention disability activists in her chapter about eugenics after 1945. But in her chapter about “the inequalities of eugenics,” she explains that at its most utopian, eugenics was meant to “help eradicate disease and disability” without commenting on the value of that goal or on the fact that eugenic methods abrogated the rights of existing disabled people. Instead, Levine goes on to detail the ways that eugenics reinforced other existing prejudices. She includes sections on nation, race, gender, class, racial mixing, and immigration. By setting up an opposition between the utopian dreams of eugenics, where she mentions the eradication of disability, and its real-world injustices, where she neglects the assaults on the freedoms of disabled people, Levine falls into the same conceptual trap of seeing eugenics as wrong only when it got it wrong—when it mistook race, class, gender, or nationality for disability.

None of the reviews of The Foundling linked above points out this problematic aspect of the novel. In fact, in her Los Angeles Times review, Lorraine Berry notes of the institution where Leary’s grandmother worked that “[a]s Leary discovered, it was not a benevolent group home for women with intellectual disabilities. Instead, it was a dumping ground for those deemed morally unworthy of giving birth.”[3] This opposition between an assumed benevolence toward disabled people and a dramatically overreaching sexism clearly recapitulates the novel’s suggestion that eugenics was wrong only because it incarcerated people who were not truly disabled.

By focusing on how eugenics mistakenly conflated disability with socially constructed categories such as race, class, nation, or gender, these critics ignore the fact that disability too is socially constructed. More importantly, they ignore the fact that disabled people also have rights. We have rights to self-determination, bodily integrity, and reproductive autonomy that eugenics—even once it leaves aside all of the prejudices people acknowledge as prejudices—denies. As Alice Wong explains in her essay “The Olmstead Decision and Me,” many disabled people are still pushed into institutions even though it is less expensive for states to provide assistance for them to live in their communities. This institutional bias stems from ableist beliefs that disabled people “don’t deserve the same freedoms and rights as other people, such as opportunities for marriage, employment, and education.”[4]

Criticizing eugenics for everything except its ableism reproduces eugenic evaluations of fitness and of human value. To counter this eugenic devaluation of disabled people, we need more voices like those of Wong and of Molly McCully Brown, whose poetry collection The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded offers an arresting rebuttal to these inadequate critiques. In this collection set in a eugenics institution, the poems’ speakers help readers grasp the sweeping damage of eugenic incarceration; as one character muses, “Whatever it is you were born to do       sweetheart       there’s no doing it here.”[5] In Brown’s work, disabled women have names, they have histories, and they speak to us in powerful lyrics that leave no doubt that eugenics was wrong even when it got it right.

Notes

  1. The popular embrace of disabled people with extraordinary abilities reinforces the notion that disability needs compensation, that ordinary disabled people are without value. For a reevaluation of the figure, see Sami Schalk, “Reevaluating the Supercrip,” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 10, no. 1 (2016): 71-86.
  2. Lorraine Berry, “Review: Why a novel about a home for ‘feeble-minded women’ resonates with our antiabortion moment,” Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2022.
  3. Alice Wong, Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life (New York: Vintage Books, 2022), 70.
  4. Molly McCully Brown, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (New York: Norton, 2017), 4. Spacing reproduced from original.

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2 Comments

Beth Kanell

Thanks for this thoughtful analysis. Ableism is not a simple concept, and many social expectations feed into it — like the early American belief that wealth will come to those who deserve it, and hence “the poor” must not deserve it. What has helped me the most in changing my perspective has been the growing awareness of what our culture labels “disabilities” in my family of origin. I love every one of those individuals, and the act of loving helps me see the strengths and rights of others in fresh ways.

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Amy A. Heller

Racism has always been — and continues to be.a core component of eugenics. Dorothy Roberts’ great book Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty makes the connections between eugenics, reproductive policy, and racism. She brilliantly traces the policing and control of Black women’s fertility from the horrors of slavery. The genocidal policies of Nazi Germany turned eugenic “ideals” into policy, resulting in the sterilization and murder of disabled, Jewish, and Romani people.

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